A friend’s wife, played by Kim Novak, is suffering from a form of dissociative fugue (sudden personality changes combined with travel to non-customary places and the inability to recall what happened). As she wanders off, she behaves as though she’s embodied an ancestor that committed suicide a century earlier. The husband hires Stewart to follow her around to both protect her and to be sure of her illness before committing her to a sanatorium.
As Stewart becomes increasingly infatuated with Novak, a love triangle forms. His not-so-secretly-in-love-with-him buddy, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, becomes increasingly concerned over Stewart’s new obsession.
Stewart was 50 when this movie was made. Novak and Geddes were 25 and 36 respectively. As a 43 year old male, I like to fantasize that women in their mid-twenties to mid 30’s will be attracted to me when I’m 50. But, alas, this only happens in the movies.
Vertigo is shot in and around 1958 San Francisco. The city and surrounding countryside play integral roles in the plot. A first kiss at Cypress Point is punctuated with a wave crashing to the shore. A flock of birds takes off from the lagoon as the characters stroll past the Palace of Fine Arts. Coit Tower stands prominently outside the windows of both Stewart’s and Geddes’ apartments. The streets of San Francisco are constantly highlighted as Stewart follows Novak around.
The famous scene of Novak jumping into the Straights of the Golden Gate at Fort Point was so indelibly stamped on my brain that when I visited San Francisco for the first time in 1997, this was the first place I had to see.
Aside from the cars and the high rise buildings downtown, San Francisco remains unchanged from how it was when the film was shot 50 years ago.
A Near Perfectly Filmed Movie
Hitchcock and his cinematographer shoot this film to perfection. Every shot, every location is impeccably chosen. The external locations, countryside, street-scapes, the architecture, are all lovely. The interiors are bright and well lit, making you feel like you are there. The movie is, cheery, colourful and full of flowers. The costumes and jewelry are spot on. The eerie music perfectly punctuates the plot.
Deserving of Multiple Viewings
As with other great movies such as Casablanca (1942), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), Vertigo gets better with each viewing. A friend and I recently watched this movie together and he had a different reaction after his first viewing than I had on my third. You don’t really understand, and can’t enjoy, the multiple plot levels until you’ve seen it a second time. The IMDb FAQ gets it just right:
First-time viewers tend to focus on the plot, its implausibilities and a twist that seems to end the movie half-way through.
Second- or third-time viewers can concentrate on the characters; the themes of love, obsession, unrequited love (the Barbara Bel Geddes character), duplicity and manipulation; and the extraordinary depth and beauty that the performances, images and music give to them. Vertigo has a hypnotic power on the viewer who has already solved the mystery of the plot and can now delve into the mysteries of human nature.
The multi-levelled plot moves slowly – very slowly. As it ‘oozes’ over you, you have time to savour each morsel of this visual treat. Ideally you’ll see it on the large screen in a theatre. Short of that, I recommend seeing the wide-screen version on a high-def TV. When the HD blu-ray version comes out, that’ll be the one to purchase for your permanent collection.
Vertigo is a gorgeous movie. Along with Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959), it is amongst my favourite Hitchcock films, and one of my top 30 or so classic movies of all time. It deservedly ranks 61st on the AFI’s Top 100 List.